Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Reversing Expectations

I've been thinking about reversing expectations a lot lately and a few movies and TV shows I've seen have done a great job of it. Of course, because my brain is currently mush, I can't remember the movie that made me think this recently... (Might have been Ghost Writer) but the finale of The Vampire Diaries did a good job of using this reversal of expectations technique.

There's an old play-writing rule (attributed to Chekhov, I think) that goes something like: If there's a pistol in the first act, it better get used in the third act -- or something like that.

Because I often feel my storytelling is too pat, my new rule (that I'll really try to apply) is: if there's a pistol in the first act, make the reader thinks that it'll be used to kill someone in the third act, but then have someone use it to scratch their back. Okay, not as a backscratcher, but make it relevant in a way that completely reverses what the reader is expecting, while not making him or her angry that I've been dangling them along, foreshadowing something that didn't happen.

The trick, I think, is to make the reader think you're going to give her something comfortable and predictable, make her think she knows what's coming -- and then to do something different. Something better. Something she didn't see coming. Awesome. (Not so easy, but awesome.)

Another technique I saw in those last few episodes of Vampire Diaries (which I watched back to back because I was behind) was the magicians' trick of misdirection. Dangle the bright shiny keys over to the left so you can slam the audience (or reader) from the right.

Now, spoilers... If you haven't watched The Vampire Diaries and plan to, and if you hate spoilers... stop reading.

Okay, so I expected Catherine would turn up at the Founders Ball. Totally. And when they showed Elena in that period gown, I was very suspicious. But of course, it wasn't her. And all the build up of "Damon is in love with Elena" was slightly off putting. It made me uncomfortable. It made me think, Oh, no they wouldn't! It felt almost like really clunky foreshadowing. Or foreshadowing a clunky plot point. Or manufacturing false tension... Because while it has been clear for a while that Damon is in love with Elena, it would be SO out of character for her to cheat on Stefan.

But while I was thinking about all that, the writers did all this key gangling to distract me... With the mayor and his son, (werewolves? something else?) and Jeremy converting/committing suicide (another interesting twist) and Elena's real mother actually having some feelings -- then pow. A kiss. An AMAZING kiss. A kiss I instantly forgot was out of character for Elena, because I'd been distracted by all the misdirection and she was so into it (and I was so into it.)

And I was so busy dealing with the implications of that kiss, that POW. I did not see that final twist coming. When the first shocking thing in the last 10 seconds happened, I thought. WOW. Elena! Look at the balls on you! And then of course, it wasn't Elena at all. For the first 3/4 of the episode, I'd been thinking "when is Catherine going to show up?" But the writers did such a good job of distracting me and not doing it when I expected... that they completely surprised me. Awesome.
And the implications of all that happened in those last few moments... Of Damon thinking he's betrayed his brother when he hasn't, etc. etc. are DE-licious. And Elena and Catherine about to meet... Will be eagerly awaiting the next season of this show.

I admire The Vampire Diaries more and more. It doesn't try to be Mad Men or Friday Night Lights or any of the other shows I admire for different reasons. It knows what it is--a genre based teenager drama--but it does such a good job of being what it is. Awesome.

Oh, and I sense a cage match coming on. I saw Iron Man 2 tonight and loved it. Maybe because I went in with low expectations, but right from the ridiculously funny opening scene, I didn't stop smiling through the entire thing.


Stephanie Doyle said...

Maureen!!! Just when I was reading this post and think how profound and important everything you said was. Even though I don't watch VD I totally got the idea of using the shinning thing over there to distract. And I also worry about whether my stories are too pat as well. All the pieces fit together... but is it enough?

Then you ruined everything by saying you loved IM2!

Can you explain what Sam Jackson was doing in the movie?????

Robert does have his fun moments. And he pulls it off better than anyone might... but no. I wanted more.

Eileen said...

Oh, Maureen, so much to think about! I'm going to have to examine what I'm doing in my WIP to make sure I dangle shiny things! So fun! I love shiny!

Maureen McGowan said...

LOL, Steph! What was Sam Jackson doing in the first movie, too? (Or perhaps you didn't stay until the very, very end of that one.) There was a post credits scene in IM2, too. Where why that dude went to New Mexico was revealed. Set up for another film, I'm sure.

Sam Jackson was there to set things up for the next movies, of course. ;) And to explain Scarlett Johansen's presence. (And I actually want to buy the DVD to study her fight scenes for future books.)

Robert was awesome. Sam Rockwell was hilarious. The dialogue between Paltrow and Downey Jr. was snappy (very Spencer and Tracey). The plot built, the protagonist's situation got worse and worse until it couldn't get worse and then it got worse...

It wasn't art, to be sure. But I thought it was solid story telling. The "romance" in it was at a twelve year old boy level for sure. Tease the girl, pretend you don't care when you clearly do, try to make her something nice (omelet), hold back something really important because it would be hard to discuss, and then save her life and kiss her -- and then immediately have your best friend make fun of you for kissing her. "Get a roof." LOL.

Perhaps I was just in the right mood. Funny thing is, I actually bought a ticket for Letters to Juliet. Went to the ladies while waiting for it to start, and then decided to move into the next theatre instead. I must have been in the mood for action instead of romance.

Maureen McGowan said...

Eileen, I'm not sure I've EVER done either of these things in a book, myself. I just admire it when I see other people do it.

Maureen McGowan said...

Very Spencer and Tracy, Maureen??? Of course I meant Tracey and Hepburn. D'oh.

Stephanie Doyle said...

Maureen - you need to rewatch Hepburn and Tracey!

When they had snappy dialogue... you could hear what the other one was saying. Talking over each other doesn't count.

Maybe I was just in a foul mood while watching this. :)

But Scarlett... was she supposed to be someobody? Something? I didn't get her either.

She looked good.

She kicked ass in 1 scene.

I'm still struggling with her point in the movie.

Eileen said...

I'm thinking the super tight cat suit was sort of the point for Scarlett although I haven't seen the movie yet. I'm just guessin'. Along with the whole 12-year-old take on romance there might be an element of boobies for boobies' sake. :-)

Sinead M said...

Having not seen IM2 I can only comment on Vamp diaries and Maureen, you perfectly nailed that show. It's not trying to be more than it is, just the best, shiniest, most delicious version and it's achieving it in spades..

Love that show. Eileen, Boobies for boobies sake, but of course..

Can I use thay as my new catchphrase?

Molly O'Keefe said...

Ohhhh cage match. I love a cage match. Though, I think half of enjoying a movie in a theater has to do with expectations. Too high, too low whatever...

I read this blog this morning and then ran around in Sinead's back yard and I've been thinking about the idea of knowing what you are being the key to the best genre. Knowing what you are and reveling in it reads really really well on the big and small screens and on the page.

I hate that I am going to have to watch Vampire Diaries. HATE it!

Maureen McGowan said...

Steph, i agree that the story didn't strictly need the Sam Jackson and Scarlett Johansen characters.
But I thought she added an ominous kind of tension in the first bits. You know there's more to her than meets the eye, but you don't know what...

I think their inclusion is the "fault" of the story coming from a set of well-loved comics where those characters and that organization are important. But I don't read those comic books, and still their presence didn't really bother me. I liked that Iron Man kind of had two suitors wanting access to his powers... The military and this mysterious

But I think Molly's right about expectations. I went in with mine low after what you'd said.

Whereas, I saw The Trotsky last night hoping to love it and was VERY disappointed. Oh, Colm Feore. I love you, but you cannot do comedy. Shakespearean comedy, perhaps, but not teenaged movie comedy. A very disappointed two thumbs down for The Trotsky from Maureen.

Simone said...

Samuel Jackson's character was setting up the future Avengers and Captain America movies, which will have Tony Stark in them. Avengers will be directed by Joss Whedon.

Scarlett's character is also in Avengers, and when Tony is making the new element for his heart he uses a piece of metal with Captain America's insignia to prop up part of the contraption.

In romanceland, we call this sequel bait and it often annoys us ;)

I'm with Maureen, I liked IM2. I just overlooked the fact that the suit supposedly fit in a suitcase in one scene and enjoyed myself. (I still hate Gwyneth, though.)

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